Heard on the Hill

When McGovern interned for McGovern (no relation)

Massachusetts Democrat’s internship in the 1970s led to staff position and eventual election to the House

Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern on how George McGovern influenced him: “Politics should be about principles and conviction, not solely about political calculation.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Rep. Jim McGovern’s career has been profoundly shaped by another (unrelated) McGovern: George.

As a 12-year-old middle schooler, Jim McGovern, inspired by the candidate he shared a last name with, joined his teachers to hand out leaflets and bumper stickers for the elder McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign.

Six years later as a college student, McGovern went to the South Dakota senator’s office about an internship and was initially turned away. But he happened to run into the senator on the way out and his staff was asked to make room for one more intern, which led to a job as a congressional staffer, which led to his election to the House.

The legacy McGovern left in Congress was as a champion of food stamps and other anti-hunger programs, and as an early opponent of the Vietnam War.

Rep. Jim McGovern (left) is pictured with his boss Sen. George McGovern soon after joining his office in [WHAT YEAR]. (Courtesy of Jim McGovern)
Rep. Jim McGovern is pictured with his boss Sen. George McGovern as an intern in 1978. (Courtesy Office of Rep. Jim McGovern

But when pundits invoke the failed 1972 presidential candidate’s name these days, it’s often as an albatross haunting candidates that are perceived to be too far left.

Asked about this perception, Jim McGovern stood by his old boss and idol: “I’m somebody who believes, especially in primaries, you ought to go with your heart. Go with the person you believe in. That’s what it should be about. Politics should be about principles and conviction, not solely about political calculation.”

Jim McGovern has taken other cues from his former boss, as a catalyst for the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program and as an opponent of U.S. military intervention. 

CQ Roll Call interviewed McGovern about the internship that set him on his career path:

Q: Tell me about your experience interning for Sen. George McGovern.

He was involved in a lot of important issues and speaking truth to power. It was exciting to be part of his office.

Q: What were you able to say to him to get an internship?

I think I introduced myself as Jim McGovern and he replied, “Oh, I wonder what’s the connection there?” And we got to talking, and we got to talking about Massachusetts — the only state he won in 1972. He was just a really nice guy. I think he realized I was really excited by the prospect of working for him. I happened to be in the right place at the right time.

And that internship, by the way, also led to a friendship that lasted the rest of his life. We became close friends and allies.

Q: And then you became a staffer, right?

I worked for the office of [Massachusetts] Rep. Joe Moakley, which was another great experience. I had the good fortune of working for great politicians who also happened to be really nice people.

I started out as a staff assistant, then became the press secretary and legislative director. I did a lot of different things in the office, from tracking down Mrs. O’Leary’s lost Social Security check to being the lead investigator into the murders of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador.

As a member of Moakley's staff, McGovern investigated the murders of Jesuit priests, a housekeeper, and 15-year-old girl by U.S.-trained troops in El Salvador. (Courtesy of Jim McGovern)
As a member of Massachusetts Rep. Joe Moakley’s staff, McGovern investigated the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests, a housekeeper and a 15-year-old girl in El Salvador. (Courtesy Office of Rep. Jim McGovern)

Q: How did the experience of working for those two offices differ?

McGovern was an idealist and out in front on so many issues both domestic and international. He was an international leader for peace and justice and for ending hunger. And Joe Moakley, he also became this leader for justice, but he was a pragmatist, a nuts-and-bolts politician.

After I got elected, as I was getting sworn in, I had McGovern on one side and Moakley on the other side. I asked them both for their best advice on how to be a good member of Congress.

Moakley said to get to know everybody on a first name basis. Get to know their spouses’ names, whether they have dogs, cats or canaries. You ought to spend time building relationships with people in order to get things done.

McGovern gave me the same advice that was given to him when he first became a member of Congress, which was to get over the fear of losing an election. Because if we don’t get over that fear, we’re not going to give people our best judgment. We’ll just be a weathervane going with the latest public opinion polls. 

Q: Has the fact that your political career began with George McGovern affected your view of presidential politics? McGovern is perceived as this albatross for candidates who the press considers too far left.

I continue to believe to this day that McGovern would have made a great president. I think what he stood for and his values, it would have created a more just and peaceful world.

I was in middle school in 1972. I was in middle school, believe or not, when I started to pay attention to what was happening. I had teachers who were working on the McGovern campaign, so in middle school I started helping them, passing out bumper stickers and leaflets.

On election night in 1972 I was overjoyed when he won Massachusetts by a comfortable margin. I was a little disappointed he had lost 49 other states. But he had won Massachusetts! So I felt like I had done my part.

At my age, I still look back at that moment in middle school in 1972 as one of the proudest moments of my life.

I managed his presidential campaign in Massachusetts in 1984. He had this great campaign line during the Iowa debate: Don’t throw away your conscience. He said to Iowa caucus-goers: If you believe in him you’ve got to vote for him, even if he doesn’t become the eventual nominee. And he talked about reducing the size of the military in that 1984 campaign.

I’m somebody who believes, especially in primaries, that you ought to go with your heart. Go with who you believe in. That’s what it should be about. Politics should be about principles and conviction and not solely political calculation. Because if it’s just the latter you’re not advancing anything, you’re not moving things forward so that a candidate like McGovern might have a better chance of winning the next time.

Q: When did you decide you wanted to run for office and become a member of Congress yourself?

It was 1994. To be honest, I just decided I was going to run. And my wife was tolerant enough to let me do it.

There was a Republican incumbent in my Worcester-based district. So I went back home and moved into my parents’ house. My old bedroom had been turned into a den, so I moved into the basement.

I campaigned in a crowded Democratic field and came in second in the primary. 1994 was a bad year for Democrats across the country, so I’m not sure, even if I had come out on top in the primary, whether I would have won the general.

That year I campaigned for the Democratic state legislator who ran, but he lost the general election. So two years later it was still a Republican seat.

My wife and I talked about trying it one more time, running not for the sake of pure ambition but to make a difference. So I went back in 1996 but was essentially written off. The DCCC didn’t believe in me. And all the experts said I couldn’t do it. And on election night in 1996, after the polls closed at 8:01 p.m., the television station in Boston said I had lost. About an hour later I bumped into a supporter in the parking lot with a Jack Daniels bottle in her hand. She said “Congratulations! You must be so happy!” I thought she might be intoxicated. I went back in and saw that I was winning.

Q: Did your experience as an intern and a staffer affect how you treat your own staff?

I hope I treat them well. As a former staffer and former intern I think I have unique and special appreciation of staff and interns here. I thought I was a worthwhile addition to McGovern’s team in the Senate. Sometimes I did things that were … not so profound. Like assembling newspaper clippings that mentioned his name. Other days I worked on research projects or committee work. But either way I got to be a part of something big.

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